Blogging Through the Golden Book: Self-Denial

In the summer of 1536, promising young author John Calvin was traveling to Strasbourg to pursue a quiet life in academics. He spent one night in Geneva on his journey, where he was approached with an offer from a local minister, William Farel. Farel persuaded Calvin—under threat of God’s cursing—to join him in the reformational efforts at the Genevan church.

Only eighteen months later, Calvin was expelled from Geneva and given three days to depart from the city where he had diligently labored. This blow hurt him deeply, but in some ways he was glad to be free of the pastoral troubles. After all, it meant that he could finally make it to Strasbourg where he was able to return to the scholarly pursuits he so enjoyed.

In Strasbourg, Calvin spent his days there teaching, lecturing, and writing. Among several noteworthy books, in 1539 he published an expanded version of his seminal work, the Institutes. This edition included the first appearance of a section entitled, “On the Life of a Christian Man,” now famously known as the “golden booklet of the true Christian Life.”

After his diversion to Geneva, Calvin had learned a thing or two about self-denial, and focused a section of the institutes on this subject.

Self-denial, Calvin reminds us, is found in remembering that “we are not our own.” When we belong to God, every aspect of our lives ought to be governed by Him. “We are God’s,” Calvin says, “Therefore, let us live and die to Him. We are God’s. Therefore, let His wisdom and His will govern all our actions. We are God’s. Therefore, let us—in every way in all our lives—run to Him as our only proper end.”[1]

This is a hard truth for twenty-first century readers. In our society, ​being authentic, positive, and “true to yourself” is considered the height of self-actualization, and self-denial feels unnatural. But as Christians, when it comes to how we use our time, what fills our thoughts, what entertainment we consume, how we treat those we do not enjoy being around, nothing is arbitrary—we belong to God, and everything we do is unto Him. 

Calvin turns our eyes from seeing ourselves as the ultimate good to worshipping God as the source of all good things. When our eyes are lifted from ourselves, we will naturally move from serving only ourselves to serving those around us. We will stop seeing ourselves as better than everyone else to seeing others as deserving dignity and respect because they are made in God’s image.

You can hear echoes of Geneva as Calvin explains the depth of our service towards our fellow man, “Supposing a man not only deserves nothing good from you, but he has also provoked you with injustices and injuries—even this is not just cause for you to stop embracing him with affection and fulfilling your duties of love to him.”[2]

This brings us back to Calvin’s comfortable exile in Strasbourg. Lest you think Calvin writes on self-denial as an academic or idealist, the next chapter from his life reveals Calvin not as the great pastor, theologian, or magisterial Reformer, but Calvin: the Christian.

Calvin received a call back to Geneva in 1541. Understandably, he was conflicted and initially opposed to the idea. You can glimpse the depths of his struggle in a letter to Farel, “Whenever I call to mind the state of wretchedness in which my life was spent when there, how can it be otherwise but that my very soul must shudder when any proposal is made for my return?”[3]

After wrestling with a decision, Calvin ultimately decided to return, writing again to his dear friend with humble fortitude: “when I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart, presented as a sacrifice to the Lord…..I have no other desire than that, setting aside all consideration of me, they may look only to what is most for the glory of God and the advantage of the Church.”[4]

The Sunday after his return to Geneva, without vindication or spite, Calvin entered the pulpit and continued to preach through the Psalms, picking up at the exact verse where he left off three years earlier. He preached there until his dying day.

Only the transformation of the gospel can cause selfish hearts to deny their personal comfort and convenience to join the ranks of redeemed sinners, singing, “Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.”

Megan K. Taylor earned her MA in Theological Studies from Westminster Theological Seminary. She and her husband, Joel, live in Sanford, Fl where she works for Ligonier Ministries.

 



[1] Calvin, John, A Little Book on the Christian Life. ed. and trans. Aaron Clary Denlinger and Burk Parsons. (Sanford: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2017.) 22-23.

[2] Ibid., 41.

[3] Calvin, “To Farel” (Strasbourg, 27th October 1540). https://www.gutenberg.org/files/45423/45423-h/45423-h.htm#Page_175.

[4]Calvin, “To Farel” (Strasbourg, August 1541) https://www.gutenberg.org/files/45423/45423-h/45423-h.htm#Page_280